The Telluride Film Festival opened its fiftieth-anniversary celebration with a noncinematic spectacle: a blue sturgeon moon rising big and bright, cresting over the tree line just as my gondola rose over the mountain ridge. Gondolas (aka ski lifts) are the transportation system that moves folks between Telluride’s main drag and one of its prime theaters (and up to bike trails and ski runs too). That night, on the eve of the festivities, my fellow gondola passengers and I were transported in more ways than one, sprung from Earth for a few magical minutes that felt like a Méliès movie come to life, the simple carriage carrying its passengers straight into the moonbeam, a glimpse of other realms for a film festival known for delivering them on its screens. And so it all began.

“Fifty years is a long time to do anything. And while we might be a little biased,...

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